Interpreting the Second Amendment

I do not take here a position on whether the Second Amendment should be maintained, repealed, or modified.

I write to take issue with many speakers not seeming to interpret the amendment the same way as I do.  Some who debate gun statutes (real or proposed) don’t seem serious about either honoring the amendment or calling for its repeal.  They talk about, for example, whether a given type of gun is useful for hunting or only useful for shooting people, and they seem to assume that Congress has the authority to restrict possession of guns of types that aren’t the most useful for hunting.  Let us face the text of the Second Amendment and recognize that is not in any way about weapons for hunting with.  It specifically mentions service to security and freedom through armed preparation for military action (with the word “militia”), therefore, specifically, the ability to shoot human beings.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

I believe that “state” in 1787 meant any one of the States of the union, such as for example Virginia or North Carolina.  The amendment addresses the freedom and security of these states.  The wording that is preamble to the actual statement of restriction, exposes, or implicitly or explicitly alludes to, certain background assumptions, including:

  • that militias can exist;
  • that a militia can defend the security of a free state;
  • that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state;
  • that in order to have any effect in defending the security and freedom of a state, the militia must have people serving in it;
  • and that in order to serve effectively in the militia, the people must be armed.

I believe that “free state” means a state that is not enslaved to the national government.  That is to say, a state that retains a degree of political autonomy and is not wholly subjugated to the national level of government.  When a “state” is “free”, it is not simply an administrative district.

The amendment raises a specter of the national government disarming the people, or perhaps in some less drastic degree than total disarmament, infringing on a right that the people have to bear arms.  The specter includes a consequence that because the people would no longer have adequate armament for defending the power of their state (up to the level of power and autonomy that makes for a “free state”, whatever that level may be), that the states then lack a sufficiently effective militia for their defense, and then we see the soldiers of the national government imposing a level of control that goes beyond that permitted by the notion of “freedom” for the state (which is not the same thing as freedoms for the individuals who live in the state).

The amendment then goes on to constrain the Federal government so that the specter should not come true.  The constraint says that the Federal government must not disarm the people.  Since compliance with the amendment leaves the people armed, they can continue to serve in militias for the purpose of defending their state.  Since it is militias they would be serving in, that means military action, which means shooting human beings under some possible conditions.

Let us consider what are the possible threats to the security of a free state, that could be addressed by military action, which again implies shooting people.  I can conceive of:

  • Threats from people from neighboring States,
  • Foreign threats,
  • Internal threats.  After all, this amendment is specifically about state security.  Even if like me you take a dim moral view of state security as a political goal to be held as more important that the security of individuals and families, you have to admit that the text is clear.
  • Threats from the Federal government and its officers, soldiers, and other agents and representatives and hires and contractors and privateers and the like.

Since the general tenor and purpose of the Bill of Rights is to constrain the Federal power and address the concerns of some thinkers of the time (1787) that the new union would centralize too much power unless some provisions were added to the constitution to assure that it would not, it seems to me that the most important of these threats for the purpose of the amendment is the threat to a state’s freedom and security from the soldiers (and other agents) of the national government.

I see no escape from concluding that the amendment, interpreted reasonably from its text in the light of some understanding of the historical context of its drafting and ratification, endorses preparation, on the part of the States, for a kind of civil war.  It seem to be saying, yes, we just created a federal union with a lot more central power than the previous union (the Articles of Confederation), but it must not become a unitary tyranny, and one of the defenses left to the states against that is an armed defense.

So it seems to me that the clearest meaning of the amendment is that the national or Federal government of the union created by the constitution, does not have the authority to keep people from being armed to shoot people.  So, saying that a kind of weapon is only applicable for belligerence cannot be an argument for restricting possession of it by Federal statute, unless the speaker will also advocate repeal of the amendment.

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